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kottke.org posts about Eleanor Tremeer

Star Trek: Progressive, Sexist, or Both?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 16, 2020

For io9, Eleanor Tremeer digs into the complex and sexist legacy in Star Trek’s progressive universe. From Uhura on, Star Trek has always pushed the boundaries of how women were portrayed on TV, particularly in science fiction, but in some aspects, the shows have also been undeniably sexist.

With Yar gone, the women of The Next Generation fit more snugly into classic feminine molds, as Marina Sirtis reminisces. “They got it right, they cast a woman as the security chief. But Denise left, and the two remaining women were in caring professions. So it was ok to be on a spaceship as a woman, but you had to be a nurturer.” Speaking to io9, Gates McFadden (Crusher) is scathing about the few times the women would be thrown together, not to work together, but to gossip. “If the ladies did have a scene together we were dressed up in leotards talking about men. We weren’t sharing opinions on a medical issue!”

Over the ensuing years, Troi and Crusher would slowly get more screen time, as their characters became more nuanced, but they would rarely get the chance to break out of their nurturer molds. And with Crosby gone, security chief wasn’t the only position that needed filling. “I was never supposed to be the chick on the show, the va-va-voom. That was supposed to be Denise,” Sirtis told us. For as progressive as Star Trek tried to be with its women, every show has something in common: There has to be a hot chick.

To understand why this was the case, you have to look behind the scenes and at who was making the casting and plotting decisions.

If the entertainment industry is dominated by men now, this was even more the case decades ago. Star Trek has had a few female writers and producers over the years-DC Fontana wrote for The Original Series, The Next Generation, and Deep Space Nine; Jeri Taylor got her start producing The Next Generation before co-creating Voyager, to name just two immensely influential staffers. But, as Sirtis points out, Star Trek was a franchise created by men: “Even though we were writing a show about the 24th century, apart from Jeri Taylor and Melinda Snodgrass [another writer], the writers and producers were all men. Twentieth-century men. So it’s not gonna be that far-reaching.”

We could argue, of course, that Star Trek was a product of its era, but the actors were aware, at the time, that the show could be better. This aggravated Gates McFadden, as early as season one of The Next Generation, as she revealed to io9. “I wondered, did the women exist for the men to react to? Even Wesley just reacted to his mother, not seeking out her counsel-for counsel he sought out the men on the ship.” Coming from academia, McFadden was used to a collaborative creative environment, but she didn’t encounter that behind the scenes of The Next Generation. “Jonathan Frakes could bound into the producer’s office and put his feet up, but I couldn’t. That wasn’t acceptable.”

I’m rewatching The Next Generation right now and have been paying a lot of attention to how the women on the show (both the recurring cast and various single-episode characters) are portrayed. There’s definitely improvement after the first season or two, but there’s just so much on the show that’s off and obviously written primarily by and for men.

Anyway, if you’re a Star Trek fan at all, you should read Tremeer’s whole piece.